If as Sir Elton John sung, “sorry seems to be the hardest word”, why is it that like so many others, particularly women, I often feel the urge to say it again and again? Apologising a million times over because I was slightly late dialling into a meeting or due to a tiny oversight, which would’ve otherwise gone unnoticed.

From my perspective “no” would be more appropriate. Whilst I have a terrible habit of over-apologising, when it comes to saying “no” I feel paralysed and find myself constantly saying yes to everyone and everything. Whether that’s accepting an invite to an event that I had zero interest in attending, or agreeing to take on a piece of new work when I’m already operating at full capacity, my natural default is to say yes.

I partly blame my legal background for taking this stance. Junior lawyers, in particular, are somehow programmed so when their senior colleagues ask them to “jump” they reply, “how high?” Much of this is down to an often unwarranted fear that if a lawyer says “no” they might be labelled as work shy or a poor team player. A further worry is that politely declining to get involved in a piece of work may create an opening for a peer to muscle in on the action – ultimately resulting in that individual becoming the new flavour of the month.

To flourish at work (and indeed at home) it’s really important to stop over-apologising and to start having the confidence to say no. Otherwise, you’ll risk being treated as a soft touch as well being over-worked, which in turn will result in potential burnout.

How to stop over-apologising

The best place to start here is limiting yourself to saying sorry just the once. Using the following steps should also help:

  • Tag the apology to a specific act or situation that has impacted the other person.
  • Acknowledge that you understand how your action(s) or indeed inaction(s) affected them. If appropriate, validate the other person’s feelings by saying: “I appreciate that must be frustrating / disheartening” or “You appear to be really upset now.”
  • Explain your reason(s) for a certain behaviour or sequence of events (don’t over-egg this as it’s likely to sound as though you’re making excuses or worse still coming across as defensive).
  • Wrap up by offering a solution or remedy to undo any harm / ill-feelings remembering NOT to end with a second sorry (unless of course when a situation is so serious, saying sorry at the start and when wrapping up may be more constructive).

In some situations, an alternative to saying sorry might be preferable. I’ve come up with the following:

  • Well spotted, I appreciate you flagging this for me / reminding me…..
  • Thank you for highlighting / noting …… We will resolve to….
  • Thank you for bringing this point to my attention. I will ……
  • Many thanks for picking up this error, I will of course…..
  • Thank you for your patience.
  • I appreciate you bearing with me on this one.

There are also lots of situations at work where an apology may not be necessary at all. For example, there’s no need to say sorry if your computer has crashed or because the post hasn’t arrived yet if this has no bearing on anyone else. But if that were the case you may wish to apologise for any inconvenience caused rather than the crashed computer or delay post per se.

Similarly, there’s no need to over-apologise when saying no. The politest way to let down a colleague or friend is to start with a thank you. For instance, “Thank you for thinking of me. I’d love to help but my diary is packed now until Christmas. If this can wait until the new year, when I should have more capacity, it would be great to pick up then.”

Alternatively, you could also experiment with the following, which have worked well for me in the past (but remember to also pay attention to your tone and body language if done verbally):

“This sounds like a great opportunity and would really help me to develop my drafting skills. However, I’m busy today helping XXXXXXX. If the deadline permits, can I please work on it from Thursday onwards”

“I’m really keen to gain more experience in XXXXX so I’d love to help out. Is the deadline for this flexible as it’s my boyfriend’s birthday so I’ve booked us a nice meal out? For example, I could log on an hour early tomorrow morning and crack on with it then?

“I would love to work on this matter but as you know I’m flat out supporting xxxxxx, which means the rest of this month is a write-off me. So, I’m afraid I won’t be in a position to help on this occasion. But please do come back to me if something similar comes up next month.”

Obviously, you’re free to edit but the key to saying no and indeed stopping yourself from saying sorry too often is practice. If I’m being honest, I found it really awkward at first and would often talk myself out of doing it. But I promise you, it does get easier and you’ll soon be wondering what all the fuss was…..

Husnara Begum, Associate Coach & Contributing Editor